On November 15 I finally heard Nikky Finney read from her prize winning book of poetry, “Head Off & Split”. In 2011 it won the National Book Award for Poetry and her acceptance speech went viral on YouTube. You can still find it there if you want to hear it. I left the Cowles Auditorium at the Humphrey Institute my ears ringing with the sound of her rich words and thoughts. She mesmerized me and the audience for an hour and a half, with her words of wisdom on writing. She also emphasized the importance of the poetry of Langston Hughes and her writing mentors Toni Cade Bambara and Lucille Clifton. “Make the pretty words do something,” said Toni Cade Bambara. And Nikky’s pretty and not so pretty words do something.
You cannot keep messing with a sweet-looking
Black woman who knows her way around velvet.
A woman who can take cotton and gabardine,
seersucker and silk, swirl tapestry, and hang
boiled wool for the house curtains, to the very
millimeter. A woman made of all this never to
be taken for granted, never to be asked to move
to the back of anything, never ever to be arrested.
A woman who believes she is worthy of every
thing possible. Godly. Grace. Good. Whether you
believe it or not, she has not come to Earth to play
Ring Around Your Rosie on your rolling
circus game of public transportation.
This is Nikky’s poem for Civil Rights matriarch Rosa Parks, “Red Velvet.” In other examples, her poet’s voice entices you into the absurdity of her mother’s wedding dance with South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond and her fascination with former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. “Sometimes the poem just walks through the door and sometimes you struggle and work for ten years to get it to the point of satisfaction,” as she described her working style.
In its ninth year, NOMMO African American author series brings significant African American poets and writers to the Twin Cities and is just one of the enriching programs of The Givens Foundation for African American Literature, founded by the Archie Givens Senior. The Givens Foundation also works in collaboration with The Friends of the University of Minnesota Libraries.
It took ten years for Nikky Finney to come back to Minnesota. Not for lack of trying she said because she appreciated from her last visit at The Loft the stimulating and diverse conversation. Next time, and I hope it doesn’t take ten years, she wants to spend more time in Minneapolis especially with Givens Collection for African American Literature. While she’s here I’d include in her visit a poetry writing workshop.